As I sit in my comfortable recliner on Christmas day, my mind should be at peace. The kids are napping, the house is a mess with new treasures, it’s about time to start cooking Christmas dinner for our family to enjoy….and yet, my heart is heavy. My heart is not alone, as I have received countless (okay….not really countless…but a lot) text messages and emails from staff members expressing their worry for students we won’t see until January 3rd.
While our nation is continuing to see a rise in mental illness, one piece I feel we are missing is the secondary trauma that this mental illness is causing in educators. Do I have qualitative or quantitative proof of this? No, but I see it daily in those I work with. Our ship has been overturned. We are drowning.
The best educators are those who get to know their students and build genuine relationships. We know this thanks to countless studies, more than I could ever cite here. We look for this in our pre-service teachers, for this is the part that we can’t teach. I’ve now learned, however, that these educators are also the ones who know their students well enough to genuinely care about them. These teachers are the ones running all over the ship, searching for any and all resources they can use to help students.
As a leader, the difficulty in helping address potential secondary trauma in staff members lies in the complexity of each individual’s threshold. We’ve all felt this, on some days we can handle the weight of the world on our shoulders and some days, we crumble after one piece of bad news. As a leader, how do I manage this?
How do I keep the ship upright?
Create Systems of Support
There’s nothing more stressful than feeling alone. Teachers must know that even on their worst day, they are part of a system that will support them in any way needed. Many times, it might appear that we have a system, but in fact, the system is not a true system at all. “System” is defined as “an organized scheme” (www.dictionary.com). The problem lies in the word ‘organized.’
Do we respond the same way each time support is needed for a student or staff member? How do we ensure that staff KNOW they will be supported when reaching out? Is support available at all times? Do we dictate what supports look like before it is needed? Who provides support?
Without a clearly organized scheme, the answers to the above questions will never be what they should be, and the ship will overturn.
Proactive vs. Reactive
Our system of support must be more than waiting for staff to reach out, and then responding when they do. Why do we wait for someone to ask for supports before providing them? What I have seen happen is that if someone (student or staff) has to ask for support, it typically has reached a point where they aren’t verbally asking. By this time, it shows in physical form: by lashing out, crying, destroying a classroom, or just running away.
Do I make time each day to check in with staff, and genuinely ask them how they are? A simple, “how can I help?” followed by real action to help, might be exactly what is needed.
Have we created a system for all students to get support? Or do we wait for them to show that they need it?
Let’s Flip the Ship
I have watched too many great educators manage their stress with prescription medication, unhealthy habits, or a change in profession. Without a solid system of support in place for both staff and students, we will continue to drown. Let’s use our resources and flip the ship back upright.